When ‘Brokeback Mountain’ came out in 2005, I loved it so much that I bought the soundtrack even though I never really liked country music. I thought that if I could at least play the score at home, I would be reminded of what such a beautiful movie made me think and feel when I first saw it. If it had been a love story between a man and a woman, I would not have bought the album but it’s doubtful I would have liked it less. But then, it would have simply been a film about two adulterers cheating on their spouses, and therefore would not have been as tragic and as touching.
Incidentally, tragedy is what makes ‘Brokeback’ an unforgettable, moving movie-going experience. This may be such a dramatic way of describing it but if you’ve actually seen it in a theater, you’d know that it definitely is an experience in as much as a movie with two men kissing induces hysterics, hoots and howls in the audience is an experience.
‘Brokeback Mountain’ is depressing but it’s the kind of gutting you want to relive. I want to do the same for ‘Carol’ which, although not half as tragic as ‘Brokeback’, is just as devastating.
The film, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, takes place in the 50s when it was tough for lesbians to be openly affectionate with someone they love (I don’t know this for sure but it seems like it). Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) meet in the toy section of a department store where the latter works as staff. Amid the frenzy of the Christmas season, when eager-to-please mothers and overworked retail store attendants can’t help but cross paths, the two lock eyes and sparks instantly fly. They are lipstick lesbians in a conservative decade, so much of their dates have to be done in a manner befitting two criminals conspiring to unleash unspeakable crimes on their unsuspecting victims – Carol’s semi-estranged husband and daughter, and Therese’ live-in boyfriend. There will be struggles ahead.
The pacing and acting are languid and understated. You wait for Carol and Therese to get it on but all you get, at least in the first hour, are furtive glances and cautious touching of hands. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara do not have big acting moments, except for one in which Carol snaps and cuts through the lawyers’ argument, and snatches her husband’s attention away from everyone to tell him to fuck all the lesbian accusatory shit as all she wants is visitation rights. The most touching scenes, though, are when Carol and Therese hold back on their emotions, so that when they find themselves alone in a motel, they hug and kiss as if someone might pop up and handcuff them, and hold them forever as captives in straight world prison.
Much like ‘Brokeback’, ‘Carol’ has gay characters fighting for their right to love. To say that someone is ‘fighting’ for the right to love is to risk sounding like song lyrics from a 90s boyband (specifically a 98 Degrees song). But Carol has actual battles: for the custody of her daughter and for the defense of her mental state, seeing as her lesbian ways were viewed as symptomatic of ill health.
It sounds a bit too much to say that Carol and Therese are ‘fighting’ for their right to love, but that is what is going on in films with and about gay people not being allowed freely to make out publicly, not even if they do it classily. Having bought but never read The Price of Salt, I feared it would end the way most of these types of films end: with someone getting raped, murdered or banished in a mental hospital. None of these potential endings are inconceivable; it’s a Patricia Highsmith novel after all. Fortunately, neither Therese nor Carol commits suicide.
I’ve always felt that lesbians have entirely different experiences in matters of forbidden romance. Even though I’ve known some lesbians, I never really felt like us and them have a shared struggle for the probably idiotic reason that girl-on-girl displays of affection raise way less eyebrows than boy-on-boy ones. But, to paraphrase a Lisbon sister, clearly I’ve never been a lesbian person. It might also have to do with the fact that I’ve never heard or read as many coming-out anecdotes from lesbian friends and acquaintances as I have from gays. Movies have been informing me about lesbians and ‘Carol’ has just told me that I’m wrong, and that in fact we have the same struggles and difficulties. What a beautiful reminder this is.